by SHALWAH EVANS
“Can You Feel It”
Eleven hours in a thrift store—ooh la la, I thought when the idea first came up. Then it occurred to me, eleven hours in a thrift store at—uh oh. But, duty called and my embed began.
Shoppers begin to file into Thrift Town at 17th and Mission streets as soon as the doors open at 9 a.m. They waste no time heading toward the huge green signs with white letters—MEN, BABY’s SHOES. So I follow their lead and move toward the sign WOMEN to begin sifting through the rows of garment racks.
“Can you feel it, can you feel it,” I sing aloud with the Jackson 5. But soon, the music competes with the sound of a helium machine filling balloons, slow moving footsteps, and the industrial fans that keep the huge space on two floors a comfortable temperature.
The store smells like an attic but that doesn’t stop me. By 9:35 a.m. I’ve picked up a tan and navy dress covered with Japanese characters.
The more I look around the more I discover—I stumble into a linen section that I never knew existed. Upstairs in the furniture section I find decorative candlestick holders, a set of 3, $1.49 each. There are vases, centerpieces, teapots, crystal. I start to think that I’ll find the menorah I’ve been looking for all this time.
The back area of Thrift Town is vast—300 to 400 sq. ft. of space dedicated to collecting, sorting and putting clothes into bins. Forty-five employees, referred to as The Team do this and keep the store functioning smoothly. They produce 28 huge wooden racks of clothing a week, which means each person sorts at least 500 pieces of clothing a day.
Of Thrift Town’s seven California locations, the team at 2101 Mission Street is the elite in terms of speed and tenure.
The store manager Debra Miller has been here for 34 years and does everything including filling a bucket with cold water to fix a stopped toilet.
“Somebody left a big number in the bathroom,” she says calmly as she pushes back through the doors after cleaning up.
Since the bathrooms aren’t for customers it must have been one of the team. Miller is unfazed. It’s just a part of the day to day for her.
Seventy-eight-year-old Ruby Danridge, or “Mother” as the team members call her, is the longest working member in the store. Danridge, who does women’s pricing, Monday, Tuesday and Friday for eight-hour shifts, loves the job.
“Sometimes its like a soap opera in here,” she says. “There’s lots of crazy stuff, lots of funny stuff.”
Gladys Ramos is also a stand-out on the team. Another problem solver, she’s 5’3” sporting a tight ponytail, with blond-streaked bangs sweeping her forehead. Her stance makes it clear she’s a gatekeeper. She wears square-framed glasses and has a gold stud inserted in each nostril. Unwilling to reveal her age—she simply laughs and shakes her head. “I just had an anniversary,” she says referring to June 24, the day that marked 10 years at Thirft Town.
Her specialty: regulating the numerous visitors who try their luck shoplifting in the dressing rooms.
“Whoa Whoa…you’ve got the best of my love,” cuts through the sound of hangers sliding across racks.
A woman in a black jacket with shaggy blond hair leaves the dressing room in jeans. Ramos suspects they’re off one of the racks and tries to stop her. She calls security on a phone behind the register, but security doesn’t arrive. The woman denies the theft and quickly exits. “Don’t come in here no more!” Ramos warns.
The incident is both alarming and exciting. And within seconds it’s all over. It’s not even 11 a.m.
Ramos says customers try to steal all the time, especially the drug addicts who hang out nearby on 17th or Mission streets.
Some even come in teams, handing each other clothes in the dressing rooms She suspects the blond woman was a drug addict, and that she had on two pairs of Thrift Town’s pants and a blouse—the reason she had her jacket closed up when she came out.
“‘F*** you! they say,” she says her thick accent imitating the abuse she gets. “I just tell them to leave. I like to check everything you know. To be sure.”
Sometimes, Ramos says, the suspects try to get physical. Security guard Richard Bosotwi says when that happens, things can get crazy.
The 40-year-old security guard, hired out by the private security firm, Big Eye Security, works the store from 2 p.m. until its 8 p.m. weekday closing time.
At least two to three days out of the week there’s an incident of someone trying to switch out their shoes, or simply sneak out the doors carrying concealed merchandise. He chases the suspects but rarely has to make an arrest. One time, though, a woman repeatedly tried to attack him.
“She was shoplifting and I asked her to leave. She said ‘Why are you asking me to leave? I’m shopping!’” he recalls. “I said ‘no, you’re shoplifting.’ Then things just escalated quickly.”
In the end, he had to restrain her, he says.
Duboce Street resident Dustin Klein goes to Thrift Town once a week. He likes to get there early and take his time.
“There’s always a list of things I need,” he says. “It’s a thrift store. You hopefully hit the mark. Sometimes you don’t, sometimes you do.
The 29-year-old entrepreneur owns a local clothing company named Cadence clothing. He goes to Thrift Town for fabric, notebooks, pens—the supplies he needs to keep his company running.
He gets excited when he finds a thick brown book labeled in script: Holy Bible, but completely blank inside. He examines the $4 book with his thick black prescription Ray Ban wayfarers before placing it back on the shelf and disappearing into another part of the store.
I’m now curious about the book—a new journal maybe. I quickly forget about the book and go back down to clothes.
I’m trying on a pair of strappy purple satin Nina sandals when Dan Nuelle, a vintage clothes dealer and a regular, finds me. Quick, he says, there’s a gorgeous vintage West Point military jacket with all the original buttons in MEN’S.
Nuelle likes to arrive early and then return later in the afternoon to catch any new items on the shelf. He goes to many thrift stores but this is by far his favorite.
“It’s the fact that there’s so much stuff in here,” says the 6’3’’ Carhartt sporting (he got the jacket at another thrift store) Nuelle.
Sienna Swan agrees. The 19-year-old Oregon College of Art and Craft student traipses into the store impeccably dressed in a thrift store blouse and funky shoes.
“This it the best of the Thrift Towns,” she tells me as she and her friend pick through the racks. She and I are about the same size, and I feel a pang of jealousy as I look at her pile of tops and jackets. I’ve got to step my game up.
“Sometimes I bring things home and I’m like, ‘What is this that I bought?’” she says with a laugh.
But it’s hard to believe as I admire everything she picks out. Her friend says Sienna has the better eye for finding the best vintage pieces: silk peasant blouses, a hunting coat, a polka dot half shirt that her friend isn’t convinced should go home with her. If she doesn’t hold onto it, I’m going to take it.
MEN’S SHOES is a hot spot for juicy conversation in the store. While trying on some nearby belts I overhear a man and woman gossiping about a “friend.”
“No one likes her!” the man says, holding the cream knit scarf he found in the store. The mutual acquaintance takes a social beating for about ten minutes before the two make tentative plans to meet up and hang out in the city, then go their separate ways.
Minutes later a group of women take up their spot to catch up on the goings on in their lives and compliment each others’ finds.
“How long have we been in here? About 25 minutes, huh,” says one woman. “Should we go?”
Three of them head for the door and the other heads back to the racks with a look of shop in her eye. As I watch her, a man comes up and politely asks if I would care to donate to his foundation. He bows and smiles when I refuse. Thrift Town—store, social gathering spot, panhandler’s corner, I think. You really can get anything here. It’s like a town center.
That Fabulous Find
“I’m always down to look at clothes, you know that,” says a 20-something sporting a hippies Boho look. But her friend reminds her that they’re there to look for VHS tapes and pulls her away from the purses.
“They have ‘Ghosts’—Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze,” she says. But her friend has never seen it.
They also find “Galaxy Quest,” “Scary Movie,” and “Liar Liar.” The Boho girls are ready to make their exit, when they spot a VHS copy of “James and the Giant Peach.” They both shrill a “Woo Hoo.”
They leave happy. I’m in disbelief that they actually own a VCR—probably a Thrift Town find.
They’re just as happy as another customer who finds footie pajamas for his two small children. He stocks up for the future.
“When you get to be like in the first grade these’ll be perfect for you,” he tells his daughter, who’s walking around the store half dressed in the pajamas with no shoes on.
They pass a regular pushing a Bissell vacuum cleaner.
“This will run you over $200 in the store. It’s $15 here and all it has is a broken belt,” he says, boasting that he can fix about anything he finds in the store. “I can fix a rocket launcher,” he continues. He lives close by and has been coming to the store everyday for 25 years.
After Earth, Wind and Fire’s hit “September” played earlier in the day I was excited that perhaps “Whip It” by the Dazz Band would play. It didn’t. By 7:50 p.m. the store is almost cleared out and I’m ready to make my purchases. I feel ashamed. I have at least 20 items on hold behind the register. Oh, well, the average price is about $3.99.
But I’m not the last customer. At 8 p.m. there is a small line. A woman stands anxiously looking as if she’s going to topple over. I feel the same way. It’s been eleven hours. The last purchase is made, totaling $23.50. The team is excited that the day has come to an end, and relatively on time. They are officially off at 8:30.
I step outside, feeling like I’ve moved back into my place in the world. All of a sudden it feels late. I wonder what I should do for dinner. I think about work the next day. I regret how much money I’ve just spent. The magic of Thrift Town wears off the closer I get to the 16th Street Bart station. But when I get downstairs to the train I look down at my two huge bags full of clothes and I’m filled with that excitement of a great find again.
I can’t wait to get home and try this stuff on again and show my roommate what I got: a vintage Victorian blouse, a knit skirt for fall, four belts, and a gray rabbit fur jacket. I couldn’t resist the jacket—it fits like I was the muse.
And it was only $8.